Melinda and Melinda, a self-conscious examination of comedy versus tragedy, struggles under the weight of its constant, superficial philosophizing. Where we could have had character, we get author, Allen imposing his personality on ciphers who lack the definition to fend it off. Is it laziness? Seems more like haste.
Allen opens his film in a café, where two writers (Larry Pine and Wallace Shawn) are discussing a story one of them has heard. Each has a different take on how the events of the story might play out. We never hear the tale; instead, we watch as the two versions are intermittently dramatized, one a tragedy and the other a comedy. (Actually, one is closer to melodrama and the other to farce.) But it's not the same series of events evaluated by two different people; it's two writers writing two versions of a story with some shared elements. Far more interesting would have been an examination of the exact same story.
Radha Mitchell (Finding Neverland, High Art) is the only actor (and character) who spans both plots. Her Melinda appears in the tragedy as an alcoholic, pill-addicted bundle of nerves who flees St. Louis after a conglomeration of tragedies: a desperate affair, loss of custody of her children, a drug-addicted rage resulting in the shooting of her husband and jail time. In New York City, she lands at the home of struggling actor Lee (Johnny Lee Miller) and socialite Laurel (Chlöe Sevigny), who try (sort of) to help her get back on her feet. When Melinda meets Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a silky piano player and composer who has been relieved of both his masculinity and his ethnicity by the script, things begin to pick up. But not for long.
In the comedy, Melinda is hapless, good-natured and humorously suicidal. In this version, she is taken in by film director Susan (Amanda Peet) and out-of-work actor Hobie (Will Ferrell), a couple whose marriage has lost its spark. While Susan seeks solace in the arms of an extremely minor character, Hobie -- the requisite Woody Allen surrogate -- falls for Melinda. Because he has neither wealth nor fame to recommend him, he must rely on character. Nevertheless, a few sight gags later, Hobie gets his girl.
Mitchell does a masterful job of creating two separate characters using body language and tone of voice. The comedic version isn't terribly nuanced, and there's not much energy between her and Ferrell, but that's the script's fault, not Mitchell's. So much of what happens in both plots feels staged and familiar. Perhaps if Allen spent more than a month on a script and gave his actors more than a couple of takes, he'd come up with something memorable again.